A year ago, a survey of Computerworld readers found that the No. 1 thing they wanted from Windows 2000 was stability - no more blue screens of death. Now, on the operating system's first anniversary, IT managers agree that Microsoft has delivered on its long-overdue promise of reliability. So today, after a year of tire-kicking, many IT managers are finally ready to begin production rollouts this year. Some are migrating eagerly to Windows 2000, some warily - especially since key tools are immature - and some are doing it only because they have to.
Penn National Insurance, for example, is just preparing to roll out Windows 2000 on its servers and desktops. But Jane Koppenheffer, CIO at the Harrisburg, Pa.-based insurer, says it wasn't the promise of higher reliability that clinched the decision.
"We are rolling out an imaging application that requires Windows 2000," she says. "If not for the external pressure from the application . . . we would probably not be moving as fast as we are today."
That kind of pragmatism - and the complexity of deploying the new operating system - are behind Windows 2000's slow march into the enterprise since its launch last February, say users and analysts.
IT managers who have worked with Windows 2000 - in test beds, in partial deployments and in full production rollouts - confirm that reliability has improved substantially. They're also experiencing better uptime due to improved handling of device drivers and dynamic link libraries and fewer administrative system reboots. The introduction of the Active Directory (AD) service has eased some administrative headaches, IT managers say.
But implementing AD has been daunting. At a New York Windows NT/2000 users group meeting, Computer-world surveyed 70 IT professionals who came to hear a Microsoft Corp. consultant speak about AD. While more than half said they planned production deployments of Windows 2000 this year, only six anticipated having AD in place this year.
IT managers would like to see better tools for planning and managing AD, more device drivers and better middleware tools for moving data between Windows 2000 and other systems. And users still have concerns about whether Datacenter Server, Microsoft's enterprise version of Windows 2000, is stable and mature enough.
Users agree that this is the most reliable Windows to date. "Stability and reliability will be the two biggest gains," says Koppenheffer, who supports about 50 home-based users running Windows 95 and 98. She plans to begin migrating users this month.
Scott Newton, IT director at baked goods company Otis Spunkmeyer Inc. in San Leandro, Calif., rolled out Windows 2000 on more than 600 workstations and 16 servers at 63 offices nationwide. He said he has seen a dramatic reduction in laptop support problems.
"Before deployment, laptops were a large part of our support. After deployment, those calls were reduced to simple things like I can't dial in.' The support time on calls has dramatically decreased," he says.
In addition to reliability and management improvements, Newton and others say they like the new features such as the Offline Files, a remote data replication capability that replaces the less-stable Briefcase applet.
"We have quite a few mobile users," says James Carbone, manager of IT infrastructure at New York-based Credit Suisse First Boston. "The biggest advantage is that you can disconnect from the network without having to shut down." Carbone is in the process of migrating more than 22,000 Windows NT 4 workstations and 3,000 NT servers worldwide.
Initial users of Windows 2000 Advanced Server's high-availability features also give the product good marks. John Loo, director of systems, network and engineering at Los Angeles-based television network E Entertainment Television, says, "We purchased a system dedicated to testing clustering, and so far, we've found no problems that haven't been documented."
He adds that on the client side, Device Manager (an applet that configures system hardware) "is a lot more stable and a lot more reliable. It seems to be smarter."
Dave Maxey, systems manager at Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based Sears, Roebuck and Co., says he hopes to use Datacenter Server's multiprocessing and clustering technologies to consolidate 67 OS/2 file and print servers onto two servers.
"We spent most of the year in a pilot mode," he says. "We think that Datacenter Server will give us the most bang for the buck and take a lot of complexity out of the environment." Sears also plans an "infrastructure refresh" that will replace about 30,000 NT Workstation clients with new machines running Windows 2000 Professional, starting this quarter.
Application compatibility has also been good, but the required testing takes time. Carbone has extensively tested Windows 2000 with a few hundred applications, as well as Citrix Systems Inc.'s MetaFrame and storage-area network systems, and says, "It's looking pretty solid." But that's only in the lab. "When you put it out in production, that's when you face the issues," he explains.
Newton says it was the administrative benefits that drove him to migrate to Windows 2000 - a process that he started last February and concluded in June. "We've been able to cut down support staff because of the centralized management of the servers," he says.
Newton cites the ability to remotely deploy new users and to use group policies to restrict users' ability to change the system configuration - something he never attempted under Windows NT because of the awkwardness of policy management under the NT domain model.
"You didn't have that capability in NT 4 without going into the policies within the domain. It was more cumbersome. It wasn't worth it," Newton says.
Both reliability and performance led Bernard Gay, vice president of enterprise technology and operations at Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. to upgrade the company's two Web servers from Windows NT. "We've converted our booking engines on our Web servers and our back-end servers using Windows 2000 and SQL Server 2000," he says. "On the Internet Information Server side, we saw performance gains of 20 percent to 30 percent."
Unlike with Windows NT, Gay says, "the servers just don't crash," and he "doesn't run into memory contention issues as much." He says he plans to deploy Windows 2000 on more than 5,000 clients and 400 servers over the next two years.
Windows 2000 certainly has plenty of areas for improvement. Some users say they're still waiting for device drivers for printers and other hardware. And while Newton will use Windows 2000 for file and print services, he hasn't put core applications on it.
"Putting our company on that for our main system - it's a little bit scary," he says. He plans to move to a new enterprise resource planning system but is cautious about moving it off his AS/400. Newton is interested in the multiprocessing and load-balancing capabilities of Datacenter Server, but he feels it's too early to commit. "We are a year and a half off from people developing the applications to reap the benefits," he says.
Users can only buy Datacenter Server bundled with system hardware from qualified vendors, which tend to offer it only on pricey, high-end systems. That makes testing the new operating system expensive, says Credit Suisse's Carbone, who is considering Datacenter Server for disaster recovery and business continuity applications.
"We would like to see a better middleware integration component," says Gay, who has many custom-developed applications and an IBM AS/400 system running a DB/2 bookings database that must work with a Windows 2000 Web server and an SQL Server 2000 customer database.
"We have had to search high and low to find tools that move information between systems," he says. And "if you're planning on writing applications and you're not a homogenous [Microsoft] environment, there are some roadblocks when it comes to compatibility."
Perhaps the most complex part of deploying Windows 2000 is creating and maintaining AD, an area in which users say more work is needed. Newton, for example, says he would like to see better tools for managing AD.
"You can find a device name now, but it doesn't tell you what container it's in, and you don't know where it is. It would be nice to have some simple reporting tools," he says. Newton is aware of third-party tools from companies like Santa Clara, Calif.-based NetIQ Corp. but says that some basic functionality should be included.
Penn National Insurance is struggling with its AD design, which won't come out until after the server rollout begins. "We're not a large organization or a small organization. We're caught in the middle," Koppenheffer says.
Dan Kusnetsky, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp., agrees. "It's hard work to get AD set up the way they want it to be set up, and the [management] tools are primitive at this point," he says.
For Sears' Maxey, the issue is creating an AD that can support upward of 30,000 users while maintaining compatibility with the existing directory system. "We're working with other organizations to create an Active Directory to apply in all locations and that will integrate with our iPlanet LDAP [Lightweight Directory Access Protocol] on our Sun server in the distributed data center," he says.
So far, the native tools for AD have been adequate, but Maxey cautions that Sears is just starting the process.
Others are less impressed. "Today, you can't back out an [AD] schema modification [that defines attributes for classes of objects in the directory]," says a Windows 2000 project manager at a financial services company in the Pacific Northwest who declined to be named. "It bothers me that you can't take that out." He also wants better tools for group policy management.
"There's no good way to search for a group policy that does what you need," he says. "You have to go through all 800 of them. There needs to be search tools."
Finally, users would like see more best practices and tools for managing migrations. Carbone notes that upgrading desktops and servers at Credit Suisse is no small undertaking. "The only thing that's drastically reduced is the scripting to get the applications down onto a workstation," he says, although "going from Windows NT 3.5 to 4.0 was much more painful."
Whistler, the next production release of Windows 2000, promises several new features on the desktop and server. The client, now called Windows XP, due later this year, includes a device driver rollback feature, a remote-control help desk function and C2 level security. The server beta includes a long list of refinements, and a 64-bit version will be available to support Intel's Itanium systems.
"Changes in the server side are pretty significant, in terms of what they're fixing in Active Directory," says Mike Silver, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc. "They're doing something to fix group objects, the global catalog, making multiple forests easier to manage."
IT managers are interested in Windows XP, but that's not stopping plans to deploy Windows 2000 Professional. Koppenheffer, who must support branch offices at Penn National, says Windows XP's new help desk functions could be "a huge benefit for us," but she isn't holding off on Windows 2000 Professional. As for 64-bit computing, the applications will drive the decision.
"Most of our vendors indicated that 32-bit is where they're going to stay for the foreseeable future," Koppenheffer says.
E Entertainment is already running its Web site on 64-bit Unix and is interested in what Whistler has to offer. But Loo is taking a wait-and-see attitude. "We will have to evaluate it and see if it fits our business," he says.
Still, Whistler will be a key turning point for Windows 2000, says Tony Iams, an analyst at Port Chester, N.Y.-based consulting firm D.H. Brown Associates Inc. "The only thing that makes a system truly robust is maturity. They've put a lot of new functions into Windows 2000 - a lot of new code," he says. And as the next production release of Windows 2000, "It is an important breakthrough because you will have a more mature product," he adds.
Nonetheless, the stability of Windows 2000 is an improvement on NT 4 and a big leap over Windows 98 on the desktop, users say. And that, for some users, is reason enough to move forward.